Estela sat in the courtyard of La Escuela fanning herself against the hot night. The city groaned and grumbled around her like an unhappy giant, and she was afraid to go home, afraid to leave the women of La Paciencia to their own devices on an evil night such as this. The city was in the third year of a terrible drought, and most of the city subsisted on pulque, but even this was beginning to run out as the maguey plants themselves began to die of thirst, the water tables dropping below the reach of their deep, enduring roots.
She wasn’t sure what she thought might happen. Both Hermelinda and the Profesór had been missing for three days, and she suspected that they were together. She was both furious at them—for neglecting their duties to the school—and worried that misfortune had befallen them. Several of the women had not yet returned from their jobs, long overdue, and Estela was loathe to lock them out as midnight approached.
One woman came up to the gate, and waited resentfully as it was unlocked.
“Where have you been?” said Estela. “You should have been back ages ago.”
“Are you my mother?” the woman shot back, before making her way to her room. She might have been inebriated.
More and more, the women who had collapsed gratefully at the gates of La Escuela came to resent the restrictions imposed on them. Mindful of the protection provided by the strictures, they had come with their children to escape abusive husbands and lovers, to see their children fed and clothed. Some had come with sores and contusions, with infections that required the attention of a doctor. Their children limp with malnutrition, the women had surrendered them to the ministrations of Estela and her helpers.
Yet some of the women had been mistresses of their own time, unused to the rigorous schedule at La Escuela. A few left immediately upon regaining their strength. Others left when it was made clear that they were expected to work in some capacity—either within the school, or at a respectable occupation outside of it. Some had come and gone several times. Estela, per La Señorita’s instructions, never turned them away, as long as they were sober within the gates of the school, and did not fight with the other residents. Some moved on, but left their children. Sunday afternoons were reserved for visits between these families, and Estela was able to see the hopes and fears of these families played out—children waiting impatiently for the impending visits, or for the mother who never returned.
Estela could hear the dogs barking from the city dump, a horrible, wild noise of fear and gluttony. Somewhere, a donkey brayed, vehemently, and stopped short, or was stopped, never drawing its next breath. It made her shudder and pull her shawl, which had fallen down around her elbows, a little closer.
The stars above the courtyard were hard and bright, and Estela could hear the creak and clop of a carriage coming through the streets long before it came to a halt before the school. Even before the gatekeeper had let her in, Estela recognized the small, black bundle as La Señorita.
“Why are you staying here?” she asked, motioning at the women sitting and dozing, or talking in small groups around them.
“I . . . don’t know. I’m worried. Hermelinda is gone.”
“And the Profesór?”
“Well then,” said La Señorita with a dismissive wave of her hand, “let them be gone. They’ll come back.”
“Is Noé asleep?” asked Estela. She had sent him home earlier with Josefina.
“Yes, he is fine. But you must not preoccupy yourself all the time with these weak women,” said La Señorita. “Leave it. Come with me. I have something to show you.”
“Oh, no,” said Estela. “I’m too tired to go anywhere.”
“This will take no energy,” said La Señorita, taking Estela by the arm and steering her toward the carriage. “This will give you reason to carry on.”
The carriage dropped them at the train station, and, without a further word passing between them, the driver tipped his hat to La Señorita and drove off.
La Señorita boarded the southbound train with Estela, greeting the conductor as though she knew him well.
“Where are we going at this hour?” asked Estela. “I have no hat. I’m not at all presentable.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said La Señorita, as ever elegant in black, as she settled herself on the leather banquette.
Estela could not tell if it did not matter where they were going, or that she did not have a hat. By now, she knew that La Señorita had made up her mind about what was to happen that night, and that she, Estela, had no choice but to be swept along in her wake.
As the train pulled away from the station, the moon shone like hard coconut candy in the sky, brittle and white, casting the buildings, as they passed, into sharp relief and shadow. The men in their white straw hats and trousers looked like paper cutouts in a Nativity scene. The houses became farther and farther apart, and the train picked up speed as they left the city. La Señorita was strangely quiet, the glowing tip of her cigarillo occasionally moving in the darkened train compartment. Estela must have dozed.
In what seemed like a moment, the train began to slow. Estela started awake to see La Señorita gathering her skirts around her. The conductor came to their car and stood by the door.
“Ready?” asked La Señorita. “We are going to disembark here.”
“But the train hasn’t stopped,” said Estela, trying to peer into the night to see where they were.
“No matter,” said La Señorita as the conductor opened the door.
As the train slowed, a small platform came into view, pale in the moonlight. With a firm grip, the conductor lifted first La Señorita, then Estela out the open door into the capable hands of a strong youth. The train, which never did actually stop, picked up speed with a whistle and disappeared into the night.
Again, La Señorita greeted the youth familiarly. He bowed and escorted them a few steps to a doorway, through which they stepped down into a room hot and bright with voices.
Estela looked about herself with astonishment. She was in a large, well-appointed room filled with tables. On each table stood a bottle of tequila or rum and a candle, and around each table was gathered a small group of women—talking, smoking, or playing cards. There was not one man in the room. The women were dressed in every manner imaginable, from traditional village dress to evening gowns to trousers with pistolas on each hip, boots on the table. Estela could barely keep herself from staring. As La Señorita had assured Estela, it did not matter that she was not wearing a hat.
The women greeted La Señorita noisily, and she stepped forward into the crowd, waving and kissing and calling out names. A tall, striking woman stepped into the room from a doorway at the far end. She was dark and of exceptional beauty, dressed in a traditional white embroidered dress. She and La Señorita greeted each other with abrazos.
“This,” said La Señorita to Estela, “is our hostess, the incomparable Doña Cata.”
Estela greeted her shyly, but recognition was beginning to dawn. She was in the famous mansion that Don Porfirio had built for his mistress, La Doña, one of the most powerful women in Mexico. She ruled her village like a man, and owned vast holdings of farmland and factories—much like La Señorita.
When they were seated at a table, Estela leaned forward and asked, “How can these women be out at this hour without their husbands?”
La Señorita threw back her head and laughed. Estela had never seen her like this.
“These women answer to no men,” said La Señorita. “These are the mistresses of power. The men have their Congress, but the women have Doña Cata’s.” La Señorita looked around the room. “This is the only reason there are health checks for the working women on the streets,” she said, “and any schools at all that accept girl students. Don’t think for a minute that the men would have thought of these things on their own, or approved of them. Still,” she said, sighing, “there is so much left to do.”
Estela tried to look around discreetly. Some of the faces looked familiar, but most of them were unknown to her. This did not surprise her, since most of these women were never seen in public, at least not officially. Estela tried to imagine which woman was with which prominent man in the government. La Señorita tried to help her out.
“That’s Doña Reina, who goes with Senator Gonzalvo-Bilboa,” she whispered, “and that’s the proprietress of one of the most expensive houses in the District, Doña Carmela.”
The men would take their wives, if any woman at all, to official functions, including those held by La Señorita to raise money for the school. Still, as La Señorita introduced Estela to them, a few said, “Oh, yes,” as though they knew who she was, and some even said, “The Woman in Grey,” as though it were her title. She wondered if, in their minds, she was associated with Victor Carranza.
Estela could hear conversations about banking and transportation, about the best colleges in Europe, the best sea routes to get there, and who had just acquired a prized painting for her collection. The finest hand-rolled cigarettes were offered to each table, the best rum and tequila and even sherry. Someone in a corner strummed a guitar that was almost impossible to hear beneath the shrill and hearty voices. As the noise and laughter swirled around them, Estela managed to choke down a glass of sherry. She was also served cool water, a commodity more precious in the Capital, right now, than liquor.
The voices seemed to grow louder as time passed, until Estela could not tell one from the other. She nodded and smiled dumbly when she thought she had been addressed, but really, Estela could not understand a thing. All around her, the women laughed and talked familiarly, calling each other “cara” and “maja”—dear and queen. In a farther corner, two of them embraced and kissed in a rather intimate manner, oblivious, it seemed, to the crowd around them. Estela was beginning to understand what La Señorita meant by the phrase, “women who answer to no men.”
After about an hour, as far as Estela could tell, the guitarist put down her instrument and clapped her hands sharply, several times. The room stilled, and the claps were answered by claps from the doorway in the same staccato pattern. The guitarist continued to clap in rhythm as several women in traditional dress entered the room, stepping and stopping in unison. Reaching the center of the room, the four of them stood facing each other, two facing two in a square, and began a dance accompanied only by the percussive clapping of hands and the surprisingly forceful stomping of bare feet. Their faces were serious, their eyes shining.
Soon, others joined them from the tables, in all manner of dress, until there were two lines of eight facing each other. The sound and motion, repeated over and over, yet too complex a pattern to remember the first time heard and watched, were intoxicating.
At some point they stopped, and one of the women sang a mournful song in a language Estela did not recognize. The original four exited the way they had come, stepping and stopping, stepping and stopping, while the others returned to their seats.
La Señorita had disappeared at some point during this dance, and Estela looked about the room to see where she might be. Then she heard that laugh again, the one La Señorita had uttered upon their arrival, and Estela saw her coming in the door arm-in-arm with La Cata. La Cata was smiling and shaking her head no, no, as several women entreated her, then seemed to relent with a shrug and a smile as a chair was pulled out for her at a table.
La Doña Cata was said, by some, to be a sorceress, a diviner. Bottles and glasses were cleared away from the table, and she spread a deck of playing cards. As she turned them face up, one by one, the other women, now standing and gathered around, murmured and exclaimed.
The sixth card La Cata turned up was the King of Diamonds. The seventh was the Jack of Hearts. As she craned her neck to see, there was something about the Jack that looked different to Estela. She couldn’t quite place her finger on it. Something about the length of the hair or the curl of the lip that made the figure look both masculine and feminine.
La Cata surveyed the cards and took a long draw on her cigarette. “The drought will end,” she said, placing her hands flat on the table over the cards, “when the fathers acknowledge their daughters.”
This was met by cheering and gritos, and La Cata swept up the cards into a compact bundle and left the room.
“But what does she mean?” murmured Estela. “How can she know that?” No one answered her.
When La Señorita could see that Estela was about to wilt, she stood up, and along with several other women, took leave of the assembly. As she did so, La Señorita brushed Doña Cata’s lips with a cool kiss, and Estela felt an ugly thrill in her stomach, as though she could not tell if she had wanted to see that or not. They stepped out into the cool night air as a train light became visible in the distance. With the same agility with which they had disembarked, the women boarded the train north and took their seats in the otherwise empty train. In Mexico City, the familiar carriage was there to greet them, and Estela fell into it and did not remember getting into her bed before hearing the cock crow. All she noted was the thin mustache of cloud that passed before the face of the moon.
Elsewhere, deep in the night, after the priests had gone to bed, the Virgin of Guadalupe left alone with her candles and her baby Jesus, young girls came out to dance. They were dressed in white chemises—stitched by their mothers of purest cotton—and they danced under the clear night sky to bring down the clouds, to bring down the old men on horseback to kiss the young girls and graze the earth with their cloudy horses. As the drought had deepened, more and more girls came out each night—arms and heads bare, bodies visible beneath the white gossamer dresses—and danced for the sky. Ancient songs went up, songs that hadn’t been heard out loud for a long time, rising up into the dry darkness to entreat the old chaacs to come down and visit the daughters of the bat-faced Coyolxauhqui. Children of the moon, the girls danced and danced, first in random motions, then in faster, circular motions, raising their arms in an ecstasy of trance and sleep deprivation. For every morning in the quiet before dawn, these same girls put on their skirts and huipiles and rebozos and carried what potable water remained to their masters and mistresses, ground the corn, kneaded the masa, and cooked the tortillas for a million souls.
Floors went unscrubbed, however, and the streets unwashed, so that the reek of the city changed from its odiferous, tropical smell to the ripeness and stench of death. Dogs and horses were dropping in the streets. Wails of mourning rose from the barrios, the roadside, the dirt lane, as babies died of diarrhea from the contaminated liquids fed to them, or from no liquids at all.
In the secret convents, the nuns were praying. Don Porfirio, indirectly of course, through his young second wife, asked that there be no raids on their illegal convents by the civil police during this time, so that they might pray for rain uninterrupted. In a certain part of the Capital, not too far from Chapultepec Park, old men were bowing and praying. Was this a sign? Had the corrupt government of Porfirio Díaz, built on the backs of the poor, been struck by plagues like Pharaoh’s army?
The earth had become so dry that the snakes had crawled out of their holes in disgust. There were grinding, cracking noises from deep beneath the ancient buildings as the normally damp soil contracted and compacted under their weight.
And the young girls danced, round and round, faces turned up, tempting the old water gods to come down, come down, and taste the curve of their young lips, caress the taut flesh of their young bodies, and leave their horses in the thirsty fields to graze.
[Refer: This story put the editors in mind of Rachel Simon’s essay “The Bells of God.”]
Image by Donna Cleveland
Kathleen Alcalá is the author of five books set in the Southwest and Mexico. A founding editor of the Raven Chronicles, she teaches fiction at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts in Washington State. More at www.kathleenalcala.com. “Bringing Down the Clouds” appears in the short fiction collection The Female Complaint, published by Shade Mountain Press.